UCLA’s Ronald Mellor on Tacitus, Roman Emperors, & Despotism

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The Learning Curve UCLA’s Ronald Mellor on Tacitus, Roman Emperors, & Despotism

[00:00:00] Charlie: Hello, and welcome to The Learning Curve podcast. My name is Charlie Chieppo. I’m a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute, and this week I’ll be hosting with Justice Barry Anderson of the Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anderson. Welcome. Glad to have you here.

[00:00:17] Barry: Delighted to be here. We’re going to have a great conversation, and I’m very much looking forward to We’ll have a chance to talk about not only issues of the day, but one of my favorite topics, which is, of course, our Roman origins to our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.

[00:00:33] Charlie: Yeah, I suspect today that I may learn a few things that I probably should have learned in school but didn’t. I guess better late than never. So, Justice Anderson, do you have a story of the week you’d like to talk about

[00:00:44] Barry: Yeah, I’ve got a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week entitled The Education Department Botches College Financial Aid Again.

[00:00:52] Barry: And what it covers is and I’ll just read a sentence or two from the article because that’s a pretty good description of the problem here. The [00:01:00] disastrous rollout of this year’s federal financial aid applications hit a new snag on Friday with the education department saying that roughly 200, 000 of the a half million plus applications processed and shared with schools and states will need to be recalculated.

[00:01:15] Barry: The lesson here is the longstanding lesson that we seem to refuse to want to learn, which is centralized control of anything, whether it’s education or various other kinds of public policy is not a recipe for success. This is the second go around with problems with the education department calculating the application for federal student aid.

[00:01:35] Barry: And of course, it’s inconvenient to students. Both students and schools and for those students who are in the process of attempting to decide what school they want to attend, now have this additional burden of they don’t really know how their various choices in higher education are going to evaluate their financial needs.

[00:01:55] Barry: You know, the article goes on to talk a little bit about the problems, there are going to be more errors found and so forth. [00:02:00] But I think the more general lesson that we should take from this is well, and this is, this is often the case, I go back to first principles and the first principle is subsidiarity, which is trying to push as much as we can, decision making to the lowest responsible group and why this particular issue isn’t handled more responsibly and more effectively is because by the colleges themselves or perhaps involving states and thus avoiding this kind of problem, or at least cabining it is a mystery to me.

[00:02:30] Barry: But we do seem to live in an era where let’s go to Washington and fix things. And very often we find we haven’t in fact fixed things. So there are some larger lessons to learn from this, but the principal short-term lesson is that the federal government screwed up again.

[00:02:47] Charlie: You know, it’s interesting as you say this my thought as well, even if you’re one who would tend to Agree or tend to think that perhaps more things should be done at the federal level seems to me [00:03:00] that Thinking right now in the current political environment that anything’s gonna get fixed in Washington would seem rather, I don’t know, the more polite word would be hopeful.

[00:03:10] Charlie: But I don’t know.

[00:03:12] Barry: Unduly optimistic. I think unduly optimistic.

[00:03:13] Charlie: That’s better. Yes. Thank you. Great. Thank you. So I suppose you have an article as well. I do. And mine comes from Forbes. And I have to confess that I get caught up. I observe things that are going on around me and I have my own, sometimes correct, sometimes incorrect impressions of those things.

[00:03:36] Charlie: And then I see something that confirms ’em and it really kind of gets me going. And that’s what’s. happening here. I have become obsessed with this fact that, well, what is in my mind, the fact that in many cases the worst thing you can do in public education is to succeed, that nothing will bring down more problems on you than that.

[00:03:56] Charlie: And there’s an article in [00:04:00] written by one founder of a charter school and one former member of an independent board that oversees charter schools in Washington, D. C. Basically 25 years ago, D. C. public schools were really in chaos there, books not delivered, you know, the doors were locked on the first day of schools, there were no supplies.

[00:04:19] Charlie: teachers didn’t show up. And what happened is what happens in so many cases, which is the families who could either send their kids to DC public schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods of the city, or they send them to private schools. So charters first appeared in the mid to late nineties in DC and Since then, city graduation rates have improved, neighborhoods are stronger both public safety and the economy have improved and, interestingly and now as a result of all this, it’s not surprising that charters educate people.

[00:04:54] Charlie: Nearly half of all DC students the rise of the charter schools also triggered [00:05:00] failing district schools. So by 2015, DC had the fastest-improving traditional public school system in the United States. Teacher salaries and overall funding rose to record levels. Well, now comes a new study done by a deputy mayor that recommends restrictions on how and when charters are permitted to enroll students.

[00:05:23] Charlie: And one of the things, the thing that really caught my eye lines from the authors near the end of the piece was, it’s hard to believe that success could be so threatening. And my reaction to that was, well, You know, look around. No, it’s not, sadly. And I certainly hope that that sort of punishing success will not carry the day in D.C.

[00:05:46] Barry: When you talk about the charter schools, I, reflect back on a political figure that Probably very, isn’t very popular these days on the right seen as maybe as a member of a past era, but I think of John Boehner because [00:06:00] Boehner was an enormous supporter at great personal political cost of education choice for students living in the District of Columbia.

[00:06:09] Barry: These weren’t. Constituents of his didn’t support his political party. And yet he was willing to go do battle and battle. He did with the Obama administration and others in support of giving students more choices. And he didn’t see any reason why the mere fact because they lived in the district of Columbia, they should have.

[00:06:29] Barry: So, I think it’s worth recalling him in the context of this article that you just summarized for us.

[00:06:35] Charlie: Yeah, I also think back to recently Boehner attending a ceremony marking Nancy Pelosi stepping down from being speaker he came, not only did he come, he was incredibly warm towards Speaker Pelosi and he, spoke to a time of more comedy and, keeping personal and policy differences separate that looks awfully appealing in the current environment.

[00:07:00] Charlie: After the break, we are going to have our interview with Ronald Miller, who’s a distinguished professor of history at UCLA and the author of Tacitus.

[00:07:41] Charlie: Dr. Ronald Miller is a distinguished professor of history at UCLA, where he’s taught Greek and Roman history and previously served as chair of the department. Professor Miller first taught classics at Stanford University and has been a visiting fellow or scholar at the University College, London, the Humanities Research Center of the Australian National [00:08:00] University, the American Academy in Rome, and Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies.

[00:08:05] Charlie: His book, and there are a number of them include From Augustus to Nero, the First Dynasty of Imperial Rome in 1990, Tacitus in 1993, Tacitus, the Classical Heritage in 1995, the Historians of Ancient Rome in 1997 and 2013, The Roman historians 1999 Augustus in the creation of the Roman Empire in 2005, and the annals of Tacitus 2012 Miller studied classics and philosophy at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and earned his a B in history at Fordham University, and received his PhD in Classics from Princeton University.

[00:08:44] Charlie: Well, Professor Miller, it’s great to have you today. Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator who is regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians. Tacitus and other classical authors also widely influenced the historical knowledge of our founding fathers. Would you briefly [00:09:00] share with our listeners who Tacitus was and why his histories of the early Roman Empire and its emperors remain so important?

[00:09:06] Ronald: Yes, thank you for asking me. I would say he is the greatest Roman historian. He doesn’t give us only facts, which we expect from historians, but he gives us political and moral analysis. And that I think kept him vibrant and alive for many generations. many centuries after his own life. He was born in the reign of Nero, about 55 CE, in southern Gaul to a Gallo Roman father.

[00:09:36] Ronald: That means a Gaul who had become Romanized and served as an administrator there in the equestrian class. After the civil wars of 69, the death of Nero, Year of the Four Emperors. The successor was a new emperor, and he brought in promising young provincials from Gaul and Spain into administrative posts in Rome.[00:10:00]

[00:10:00] Ronald: And with the patronage of another Gallo Roman, Julius Agricola, whose name we’ll be mentioning later, Tacitus excelled in a career in the law courts. He married Agricola’s daughter. He reached political office in the Senate and after service as a military commander, he was named consul in 97 and was later governor of the very large and important province of Asia.

[00:10:25] Ronald: His close contact with the imperial court gave him deep insights. into the tyrannical nature of imperial rule. Tyrants can control the present, he says at one point, but not the future. And so the chief function of history is to reward virtue and to frighten evildoers. With the damnation of posterity, his literary and rhetorical training and his legal career prepared him to do exactly that.

[00:10:53] Ronald: He gives us a picture of the decline of Roman virtue driven by his own anger [00:11:00] and knowledge of what he called the arcana imperii. Latin for the secrets of rule, how this system really works. So we’re left with a great pessimist, the story of decline. It’s a kind of counterpoint to Virgil’s. Aeneid, the great story of Rome’s foundation.

[00:11:22] Charlie: it sounds like he’s not just a historian. He actually, had experience you operating in a political environment himself, which I’m sure, contributed to his insights. Very interesting. I didn’t realize that.

[00:11:35] Charlie: So, in Tacitus, you wrote, A deeply engaged public man. Tacitus saw his work as a continuation of his political life, and like Cicero, he believed that history should be both useful and moral. The historian was both a teacher and a judge.

[00:11:48] Charlie: Can you help us appreciate Tacitus’s gifts as a writer, as well as what his withering assessments of unchecked authority can teach us about human nature, political power, and the dangers of [00:12:00] despotism?

[00:12:00] Ronald: a great French writer said that personality is revealed in style. Well, that may be true at certain times, but what we see in Tacitus is that his rhetorical training allowed him to write nice, smooth Ciceronian Latin.

[00:12:15] Ronald: We see that in one of his shorter works called The Dialogue of the Orators. But in his historical works. which we call the annals and the histories. Those are names given by modern scholars, but he avoided the elegant prose that earlier writers like Livy and Cicero used. He preferred an abiding acerbic style with the hidden truths of power revealed, not sugar-coated.

[00:12:43] Ronald: So he’s filled, his work is filled with punchy aphorisms that we today might expect from a journalist. He says the later Emperor Galba played the slave to become the master, or he calls another character [00:13:00] occultio non mellior. That means more secretive, not better. And in another line, he actually uses his Latin to convey the rush, the rush into servitude by consuls, senators and knights.

[00:13:15] Ronald: No ands, just pum pum pum. So he’s capable of using his style to enforce. What he thinks, one of my favorites, he seduced the soldiers with bonuses. This is referring to Augustus, the first emperor. He seduced the soldiers with bonuses, the people with food, and everyone with the sweetness of peace. Now you might hear that and say, Gee, that sounds all pretty good.

[00:13:43] Ronald: But in the Latin. Tacitus uses the word pelexit, which is a sexual seduction. He’s seduced with a dark side. And he does that powerfully with his style. And [00:14:00] also with his dramatic effects. He was later used by playwrights, even on television. Claudius, you know. He was very good at painting people.

[00:14:07] Ronald: Pictures,

[00:14:09] Charlie: you know, as a writer. I love that. I just love that image. That’s great. Tacitus, I consider the first writer in the world without a single exception. His book is a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his granddaughter.

[00:14:25] Charlie: Would you talk about the wide influence classical learning had on the founding fathers and education in the early American Republic?

[00:14:32] Ronald: Well, there are lots of things that the founding fathers could look toward. They were not looking for democracy. Democracy never occurs in most of their, discussions.

[00:14:43] Ronald: They were looking for liberty, freedom from King George, whatever. Democracy they might have been nervous with. The mob rule in Athens, they were looking for models for an aristocratic republic in which the [00:15:00] landowning class would run things. And that’s what most of the founding fathers were.

[00:15:07] Ronald: and they looked back to Rome And Tacitus had already been used in early modern times for moral instruction. Francis Bacon in England in the 17th century said he was more, a more important moralist than Plato and Aristotle. Edward Gibbon called him the most philosophical historian, and what I really love is that John Milton in Paradise Lost uses certain traits of Emperor Tiberius in his portrait.

[00:15:36] Ronald: of Satan. So you have this in the background. What is Tacitus’ appeal to the colonists? His hostility to tyranny, his wit, and his moral outrage. So the morality of patriotism the Romans are not looking toward religion. They’re looking toward the noble deeds of the [00:16:00] past. What the Romans called the mos maiorum, the way our ancestors behaved.

[00:16:05] Ronald: And that word mos is the root of moral. Some of the lines that Tacitus comes up with appear almost untouched by the founding fathers. In Agricola, he refers to the Britons, who his father-in-law was off conquering and subduing. And here’s the quote, as long as they fought separately, they were conquered together.

[00:16:33] Ronald: And Benjamin Franklin wrote to John Hancock, we must hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately. Guess who he was reading. And another question that comes up frequently is how, how to be a tester, how to be a good man under a tyranny, like his father-in-law, Agricola. And that’s hard. [00:17:00] And it’s one of the things that as the founding fathers were coming out of control by the Kings of England, they had to try to figure out how do we now be good.

[00:17:11] Ronald: Another thing that’s asked this is very powerful, and I think this has been picked up at certain periods in modern times is the way that the corruption of language is connected to the corruption of power. People throw around words to hide that we really are in the midst of a decline of virtue.

[00:17:36] Ronald: This is Of course, Tacitus is a great theme in the annals and Thomas Jefferson argued that Tacitus in ancient history should be in the curriculum of the University of Virginia. , they really believed in it. Now, Tacitus had, through the centuries before the founding fathers, he had collected all the right enemies.

[00:17:58] Ronald: He was denounced [00:18:00] 18th century by popes. by kings, by emperors, and even by the Tories in the 18th century. Rulers distrust his cynicism and his honesty. Later, just after the American Revolution, we have Napoleon goes on a rant at a party in Germany in the presence of the great German writer Goethe. He calls, why is everyone talking about Tacitus?

[00:18:27] Ronald: He’s a slanderer of humanity. He said bad things about the emperors that we all know the Roman people loved. Okay, if you’re a poet and Napoleon who’s just conquered your country is going on like that, I think what you do is you say, yes, sir.

[00:18:46] Charlie: That would be advisable. Yes, that’s interesting. Julia Caesar was assassinated by about 40 Roman senators on the Ides of March and 44 BC, ultimately resulting in the death of the Roman Republic and the [00:19:00] birth of the Roman Empire under Emperor Augustus. Could you briefly explain this history and how the decline of the authority of the Roman Senate shaped the political behavior, diminished freedom, and autocratic rule that would follow in Rome?

[00:19:13] Charlie: Yes, indeed,

[00:19:14] Ronald: that Romans first had kings Etruscan kings, and they overthrew them in about if we believe the early sources, about 509 BCE. And we then had five centuries of Republican government. Republican meaning comes from the two Latin words, res publica, the thing that belongs to the people. So the republic was something that belonged to the people, not to a king.

[00:19:44] Ronald: And there were assemblies of men, of course, there were soldiers who were entitled to come to these assemblies, who elected the magistrates, including the top magistrates, the consuls, then served as generals. And these top magistrates formed the [00:20:00] Roman Senate. Again, I hate to be too etymological, but I do with students have to be.

[00:20:06] Ronald: The word Senate is derived from the Latin word cenex, old man. that was fine, but in the first century, b, CE, after Rome had conquered Italy after Rome had conquered Carthage after Rome had conquered the Greeks, city-states. The armies came to be used by individual leaders. They became in a way what I like to call personal armies.

[00:20:34] Ronald: They were not armies of the Senate and the Roman people. They were being paid for by their generals out of the booty. And so we have a series of men, Marius and Sulla, you may know the names of Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian, all of them had armies that were loyal mostly to them. The Senate became subservient, [00:21:00] and the troops were loyal to those who paid them, their generals.

[00:21:05] Ronald: And then we move then, To these generals fighting against each other, producing a civil war. The result of that civil war was the rise of Julius Caesar, who had been the governor of Gaul, had conquered Gaul, had taken, sometimes it’s estimated, a million Gauls as prisoners of war that could be sold as slaves.

[00:21:30] Ronald: That’s how he financed his payment to the troops. He was named dictator and after his assassination and another civil war, his great-nephew Octavian took the name of Augustus. The empire had begun. The Republic was over with Tiberius, who’s probably the most complex character in testis.

[00:21:54] Ronald: We see a man who was manipulated by his courtiers. He had personal grievances [00:22:00] for having been in the shadow of Augustus for so long. And we’re beginning to see. That big problem and Tacitus wanted to tell this to the Founding Fathers, even if he didn’t know they were going to be Founding Fathers.

[00:22:15] Ronald: The danger of hereditary monarchy, the complications of transitions. We can look at that in, you know, pick up the newspaper and read about the British royal family. Or also read about possibly the transition after Vladimir Putin. How do you do a transition? And even in our own country, it’s not easy.

[00:22:38] Ronald: And Tacitus is giving us some Warnings.

[00:22:41] Charlie: Yeah, boy. Warnings that too many of us modern folk have not heeded, unfortunately, very interesting. This is the annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of the emperor Tiberius. to that of Emperor Nero, which is the years A. D. 14 to [00:23:00] 68. This narrative is vital for understanding the overall history of the Roman Empire during the first century A.

[00:23:06] Charlie: D. Would you give us a very brief overview of this work and the key dramatic warnings Tacitus is teaching posterity about Rome’s imperial politics? I think you probably just gave us one of those warnings.

[00:23:18] Ronald: I’m afraid I, I overlapped. some of these questions, but The annals begin with the death of Augustus 14 and go to, in theory, the death of Nero or the beginning of the civil war in 69.

[00:23:35] Ronald: One of the problems for us is that books seven to 10 are missing.

[00:23:41] Charlie: Ah, interesting. Okay.

[00:23:42] Ronald: And that is the entire reign of Caligula. We learn about Caligula only in bits and pieces. in Tacitus. Otherwise, we have to go to, say Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars. And books 17 [00:24:00] and 18, the end of it, is missing.

[00:24:04] Ronald: There’s a man called Henry Saville, who was the Latin tutor to Queen Elizabeth I. And he translated The histories was knighted for translation. That was a different time and place. And he decided to write the missing parts. 1718. It’s interesting to read it because Henry Saville writing around 1600 had read Machiavelli.

[00:24:31] Ronald: And so that transition at the death of Nero into the civil war is a little bit more Machiavellian than because he rewrote it. He wrote the missing link. And he gives it a Machiavellian spin. But even with Fastus, the first Book, so to speak, the first hexad, a group of three books, might begin about the sixth paragraph, where Tacitus says, the first [00:25:00] act of the new principate was the murder of Agrippa Postumus.

[00:25:04] Ronald: Agrippa Postumus was the surviving grandson of Augustus and the new principate. regime thought it would be better if he wasn’t around. In Book 13, which is the beginning of the third Hexad, the third group of three books, the first line is, that the first death of the new regime was Junius Salanus, also a great-great grandson of Augustus.

[00:25:31] Ronald: This sense of doom is Put out there, we don’t have the beginning of the second Hexad, book seven is lost, but he is in a literary way, putting these deaths, which might not be that important politically, finally, dramatically, and rhetorically, he gives you that sense of doom. We get in this book, the prejudice of the senatorial class, of [00:26:00] course.

[00:26:00] Ronald: The corruption of senators. is one of Tacitus’ big themes, and he’s an outsider who’s become a senator. So he looks at the decline of virtue. One of the warnings is that we have two very powerful speeches in Tacitus’ works, one by a Roman in favor of Roman imperialism, saying to the Gauls, if it wasn’t for us, the Germans would be in here and run all over you.

[00:26:33] Ronald: And the other by the British chieftain Kalgakos, for which the only evidence we really have is in the Agricola, who argues against Roman imperialism with his great line, they brought devastation and they call it peace. Is that not a line that can be used through the ages?

[00:26:56] Barry: Professor, as you note in your book, these are not biographies, but [00:27:00] Tacitus’s interests never wandered far from the imperial palace and Rome itself. Could you quickly sketch for us his portraits of the emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero?

[00:27:12] Barry: And what we can learn from how he characterizes their political leadership.

[00:27:17] Ronald: The lives of the emperors that Tacitus provides are different from the lives of the emperors that Suetonius. Suetonius is interested in the gory details, how much body odor someone had, and whether he was bald. All of those kinds of interesting, sometimes slightly unpleasant characteristics.

[00:27:40] Ronald: Tacitus was interested much more in the politics. Thank you. and the morality of things. the creation of Tiberius seems to be that of Tacitus looking at the psychopathology of a monster. He distrusts the [00:28:00] Hellenization of Nero. They’re surrounding themselves with these Greek freedmen.

[00:28:07] Ronald: Who, in Tacitus’ view, he’s a Western Provincial, sees these Eastern Provincials as untrustworthy. Tacitus finds, of course, vice more compelling than virtue. He’s not producing Livian heroes like Scipio, Romulus or Cato. He’s producing, on the whole, monsters. And he has a very negative view of women.

[00:28:31] Ronald: The power of the women in his first books is that they loom over weak men like Claudius. We also have in his portraits of the emperors, their performative elements. Now, we have fortunately or unfortunately been deluged in recent decades with the performability of our leaders in this country and abroad?

[00:28:59] Ronald: [00:29:00] Of course, television and social media have brought that in. So we have that as Nero plays a King, he dresses himself up as a  singer, he didn’t play the liar when Rome burned, according to Testis, he simply played the lute and sang of Troy burning in the past. So all of this kind of. Performance rule, is part of what Pastis brings to his analysis.

[00:29:29] Ronald: He’s biased against Claudius. It’s a general senatorial bias. In fact, if you look at the facts that he gives us, Claudius administered the empire better and gave better speeches than Pastis. most of the other emperors. But nonetheless, there is that bias. He’s crippled. He had probably had polio as a child.

[00:29:53] Ronald: In general, Tacitus is not looking for sordid stories. He’s looking for true [00:30:00] causes. He’s looking for historical causation, and that’s something that we admire him for.

[00:30:06] Barry: he’s writing for the ages, not for the tabloids, would be another way to put that, I suspect. That’s right. Let’s go a little more current with our next question. John Adams rights to his then-young son, John Quincy Adams the following. In company with Solus, Cicero, Tacitus, and Livy, you will learn wisdom and virtue. You will see them represented with all the charms that language and imagination can exhibit, and vice and folly painted in all their deformity and horror.

[00:30:36] Barry: What are some of the ways in which Tacitus and the Roman historians influence the constitutionalism that is so much a part of our founding era?

[00:30:46] Ronald: Well, John Quincy Adams himself in his oration at Plymouth, long before he became president, he gave an oration at Plymouth commemorating the arrival of the pilgrims.

[00:30:57] Ronald: he quoted Tacitus. He [00:31:00] said, Tacitus says, think of our ancestors and our descendants. Now, those of you who read my book with great care, which I doubt is anybody, since my wife proofread it will notice that I dedicated it to my only living at that point, my ancestor, my mother, and my only living descendant, my son.

[00:31:27] Ronald: The great thing that I think the task is taught ancestors, the American framers is freedom of speech.

[00:31:31] Ronald: You cannot have freedom when you have censorship. One of the greatest speeches in Tacitus is by a man called Cormutius Cordus, who otherwise we would not know, and he is a historian. His works had been burned, and he later starved himself to death. But in his speech, he laughs at the stupidity of those who try to silence memory.

[00:31:57] Ronald: You can’t silence memory [00:32:00] by simply burning the books. We have, later, the death of Seneca, under Seneca, who was a great philosopher, who was a tutor of Nero. And he committed suicide in the midst of a conspiracy theory, false persecutions. At the beginning of the annals, is revealed to have reinstituted something from the remote past of Roman history.

[00:32:25] Ronald: The Lex Maestatis. That is to say, the law on Well, the Romans would call it maestas. If you had harmed the standing of a consul, or even I think of a judge or pro consul that is cause for persecution. You wrote satires, you wrote histories, and all could be persecuted now. And one of the great lines, I think, in Tacitus.

[00:32:54] Ronald: Which was quoted by a 19th century Brit who was running for office in London at the [00:33:00] funeral in 23, a D junior at the age of 90, a woman who was once the wife of Cassius and the daughter of Brutus, remember who assassinated the Caesar or who, who were involved in the civil wars, I should say at the funeral procession, 20 busts of famous families were carried.

[00:33:25] Ronald: But as Tacitus says, conspicuous by their absence were the busts of Brutus and Cassius. Conspicuous by its absence, if you look it up in the English, Oxford English Dictionary, you will find the reference to Lord John Russell using that in a political campaign in the 19th century.

[00:33:48] Barry: Fascinating. the work of Tacitus echoes down the centuries.

[00:33:54] Barry: Among his works, though, were three minor books, three minor writings Agricola, a biography of his [00:34:00] father-in-law, the Germanic, the Barbarian tribes of northern Europe, and the Dialogus about the art of rhetoric. Are there a few quick things we can learn from these lesser-known books?

[00:34:10] Ronald: Well, I think so.

[00:34:11] Ronald: I think the Agricola is a biography that looks at the cost of virtue. His father in law, he has resentment of the treatment of this man by Domitian. And it talks about the costs of conquest. Conquest is never just simple. We get their stuff. And the Britons in this book are rather heroic. Because they have to be heroic to be a foil for Agricola.

[00:34:43] Ronald: A Roman is going to conquer somebody, he has to be a tough guy. and so that’s what we get out of the Agricola. The Germania, well, Chris Krebs, up at Stanford now, published a book. called The Most Dangerous Book. It was a phrase [00:35:00] used by, earlier by a great historian, Momigliano, because that Germania has come down through the ages.

[00:35:08] Ronald: In Tacitus, she portrays the Germans as noble savages and a pure, unmixed race. Sound familiar? Again, a praise of virtue because he wants to use that to critique Roman immorality. He’s much less sympathetic to the Germans in his historical annals and histories, but here in this monograph about these people who he had never visited he begins the trope of the pure race.

[00:35:41] Ronald: Which is then taken up by the Germans in the Reformation, big time, and subsequently. The Dialogues, less important for historical things, it’s a book of the intersection, you might say, of literature and society. How literature can change. [00:36:00] As society changes, I might call it a book of literary criticism.

[00:36:05] Barry: Tacitus also wrote the following, No honor was left for the gods when Augustus chose to be himself, worshipped with temples and statutes like those of the deities. What role did religion play in the early Roman Empire? And how the political leaders were worshipped as gods? Talk about that a bit if you can.

[00:36:23] Barry: And how did this harm Roman politics?

[00:36:27] Ronald: The original Roman deities were gods of the countryside, gods of the household, they call them lares or penates. And then they brought in Olympians from Greece via Etruria, because the Romans initially were, in Etruscan culture. They were part of the Etruscan Etrorean, that is to say world.

[00:36:53] Ronald: And we get some names, I can just give you one. The chief god of the Greeks was [00:37:00] Zeus. We all know about Zeus. And if you pray to Zeus, Zeus the father, what you say is Zeus the father.

[00:37:10] Ronald: So they were taking over these gods and sometimes making their names more convenient In the second century BCE, the Greeks began to worship proconsuls. Why? Because after Alexander the Great, the Greek kings who controlled Egypt and the Ptolemies or other parts of the Eastern world were worshipped as gods.

[00:37:33] Ronald: So when the Romans came and conquered, the Greek cities didn’t quite know what to do about this, so they worshipped the proconsul who conquered them. But not in Rome did this happen, until after the death of Caesar. And they called a deified god, Deus, and you can see it if you have a Roman coin in your pocket.

[00:37:57] Ronald: You might see Deus [00:38:00] Augustus, Deus Julius. Not Deus, which is the ordinary for God. So they were beginning to worship the gods when they were dead, not while they were still alive.

[00:38:14] Barry: We turn now to the conclusion of your Tacitus book, you write the following. The Annals and the Histories are a brilliant and angry analysis of his class, his age, the moral condition of imperial Rome, of the ageless corruption of politics. As a classical historian, and this is not by no means, the only book you’ve written, we covered that earlier with your biography, but also as a citizen, what do you draw from his works that helps you better understand American politics and government today?

[00:38:46] Ronald: one of the things that I drew, and when I first taught Tacitus, in Latin. It was in the middle of the Vietnam War. I was teaching at Stanford at that time. And the angry analysis [00:39:00] of the lies that were being told was something that the students were very familiar with.

[00:39:06] Ronald: The corruption of language that we are fighting for freedom is something that Tacitus really is very powerful on. He says it leads to the corruption of politics and even today. We have words thrown around that in 50 years will be seen to be empty, empty rhetoric. he also said one thing at the beginning of his history about Emperor Galba.

[00:39:35] Ronald: Qhapaq’s imperii, nisi imperacet, a great Latin line, he would have been thought capable of ruling If only he had never ruled,

[00:39:48] Ronald: it’s been said about some presidents in our country that they had all of them on paper on paper, he would have been a great CEO, but then he [00:40:00] got the power and it didn’t work. So this desire was not for democracy but instead for emperors. He wanted virtuous rulers. Democracy might lead to mob rule.

[00:40:14] Ronald: And he wants to tell you, the cost of hereditary monarchy. We have to choose the best man, which happened after the death of Domitian in 96, there were a series of emperors whom Pastus himself calls good emperors, referring to the first two, and there were about five. In fact, one of them, Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher, revoked the censorship laws.

[00:40:43] Barry: Professor. If you would read a paragraph for us.

[00:40:46] Ronald: I’m reading really almost at the peroration of this book. Here we go. Tacitus recreated the truth of the early Roman Empire, the truth of our lost freedom, the [00:41:00] truth of intellectual and moral decline, the truth of sycophancy and dissimulation of court politics, the truth of cowardice and collaboration, the truth of evil. He survived, and even prospered under that regime, and his burden of guilt made his perceptions all the more acute. All historical writing is a recreation of the past through the consciousness of the historian who often reads his own life into his subject. He knew the worst, and like so many great artists, Tacitus was trying in a healing work of self-revelation to exercise his own demons. His books are, to some degree, a study of his own troubled soul.

[00:41:46] Charlie: Professor, that was wonderful. Yeah, that was great, Professor. Thank you so much. Appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

[00:43:20] Charlie: Well, that was certainly an interesting interview with Professor Meller, certainly got me thinking and taught me a lot of stuff. I probably should have known, but I didn’t. And now we’re going to move on to the tweet of the week, which came from Phil McRae on March 22nd about an issue that is close to all of us who are parents and that’s smartphones.

[00:43:39] Charlie: He wrote a smartphone ban. In the U. S., a teacher, Mary Garza, instructed her students to set their phones to loud mode. Each time a notification was received, they’d stand up and tally it under a suitable category. This occurred during one class period. Each mark is a learning disruption. So, very [00:44:00] interesting insights from Phil McKay.

[00:44:02] Charlie: Well, Justice Anderson, thank you very much. It was really a pleasure to do this, to finally get to meet you, at least over Skype. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for inviting me to participate. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. Next week The Learning Curve, our guest will be Eva Moskowitz, certainly somebody who is often in the news, head of Success Academies in New York City, and who is certainly in the midst of a lot of high-profile battles on behalf of the charter school movement.

[00:44:29] Charlie: So, I hope you’ll join us next week. Thanks very much, and thanks for tuning in.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Charlie Chieppo and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Barry Anderson interview UCLA’s classical historian, Prof. Ronald Mellor. Dr. Mellor delves into the enduring influence of Tacitus, the great Roman historian, on both America’s Founding Fathers and contemporary understanding of politics and government. He discusses Tacitus’s insights on the early Roman emperors, unchecked authority, moral judgment of leadership, and the decline of the Roman Republic, as well as ancient lessons for modern governance. Prof. Mellor closes with a reading from his book, Tacitus.


Stories of the Week: Charlie discussed an article from Forbes about successful charter schools in the District of Columbia; Justice Anderson analyzed an article from The Wall Street Journal on how the Education Department botches college federal aid once again.


Dr. Ronald Mellor is a distinguished professor of History at UCLA, where he’s taught Greek and Roman History and previously served as chair of the department. Prof. Mellor first taught Classics at Stanford University and has been a visiting fellow/scholar at the University College London; the Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National University; the American Academy in Rome; and Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies. His books include: From Augustus to Nero: The First Dynasty of Imperial Rome, (1990); Tacitus, (1993); Tacitus: The Classical Heritage, (1995); The Historians of Ancient Rome, (1997 and 2013); The Roman Historians, (1999); Augustus and the Creation of the Roman Empire, (2005); and The Annals of Tacitus, (2012). Mellor studied Classics and philosophy at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and earned his A.B. at Fordham University, and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Princeton University.

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